BEIJING — China has decided to be more forthcoming with information about imprisoned dissidents as a means of defusing criticism from Western countries, U.S. human rights activist John Kamm said here Wednesday.
"The Justice Ministry said it, the State Council Information Office said it, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it: that this is a definite trend, the provision of more information on prisoners, (including) photographs (and) videotapes," said Kamm, a Hong Kong-based businessman who has become a prominent campaigner for an easing of repression in China.
A former president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, Kamm describes his human rights work as a humanitarian effort that also seeks to improve U.S.-China ties by reducing sources of tension, such as mistreatment of dissidents. He has won a certain amount of favor in Beijing by testifying before the U.S. Congress in opposition to any linkage of U.S. trade policy toward China with human rights conditions.
Over the past year, a pattern has developed in which Beijing sometimes makes announcements of prisoner releases or other positive steps concerning dissidents by informing Kamm, who then shares the information with reporters.
During his current visit to Beijing, Kamm said, a senior official told him that the Chinese government has "come to the conclusion that releasing detailed information (about prisoners), assuring people of their health and conditions like this, can be as important as actually releasing people."
China apparently reached this conclusion, Kamm said, after seeing the response to Beijing's release in recent months of prison photographs of three of the country's most famous prisoners: Chen Ziming and Wang Juntao, both imprisoned for their roles in the 1989 pro-democracy movement in Beijing, and Wei Jingsheng, imprisoned since 1979 for his role in the 1978-79 "Democracy Wall" movement.
While Western human rights advocates obviously would strongly prefer that such prisoners be released, human rights organizations do place some value on ensuring access to, and monitoring of, individual prisoners. This is based on the idea that torture, medical neglect and other serious abuses of prisoners' rights are less likely if the prisoners remain subject to public view. It also may be more difficult for a government to continue unjustified incarcerations if people do not simply disappear into a prison system.
This week, officials gave Kamm two photographs of another famous dissident, Xu Wenli, 49, a railroad electrician imprisoned since 1981 for his pro-democracy activities, primarily the editing of a journal called April Fifth Forum. One of the pictures shows Xu, somewhat thin and pale but not in obvious bad health, playing badminton in a prison courtyard. The snapshots were said to have been taken in May at Beijing's No. 1 Prison.
"They say he's got his own cell, (that) he's allowed to mix with other prisoners. . . ," Kamm said.
"I said, 'I understand he's got serious medical problems,' " Kamm added. "They said, 'Oh no, he came in second in a badminton contest, and you can see from this photograph that he's very active and very alive.' I think he looks a little pale, myself. . . ."
Kamm said he was told that prison videotapes have been made showing Xu plus two other key dissidents, Ren Wanding, 47, and Wang Dan, 24, and that China plans to show these to the U.N. Human Rights Commission "in the next few days."
Ren is a colleague of Xu and Wei from the Democracy Wall movement, a brief period when citizens' posters urging greater freedom were allowed at one particular wall in Beijing. Ren was in jail from 1979 to 1983 for writing human rights essays during the Democracy Wall period, then was imprisoned again after playing a small role in the 1989 Tian An Men Square protests. He is now serving a seven-year sentence.
Wang, a former Beijing University student, was one of the top leaders of the 1989 movement. He was sentenced to four years.